Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Death And Dismemberment Revisited

Ha ha! You are disarmed!
I haven't been blogging much lately, as you can probably tell. Still, I am busy enough, so maybe I can just update something here.

One of the things that I've done for the Middle Sea setting that I wanted to note is to incorporate some of the ideas that I had originally intended for the Black Blood of the Earth setting. It turns out that they won't be easily incorporated using D&D rules, but I've also been thinking about how to approach the setting as general fiction worldbuilding. So, I'll probably skip the Black Blood of the Earth stuff for the game, but the idea of a limited resource related to magic that is starting to run out is one that keeps drumming at the back of my skull, as it were. Whatever, this blog is mainly for gaming, at least for now. I might talk about it some other time, though, as I'm starting to play with the idea of using GURPS to play out some of the fiction and to give it a coherent "physics" of a sort. I am resisting the temptation to start a project of developing a dedicated game system for it, however. You don't know how hard that temptation is to resist.

A while back, I included a list of possible house rules for the Middle Sea or Terra Ultima settings. After thinking about those, I worked out some clarifications of some of them, some simplifications, and so on. I want to present here my current thinking on Death & Dismemberment.

In D&D, and explicitly so in AD&D, hit points are not meant to refer (at least exclusively) to physical damage. They represent a range of things, from fatigue, to physical toughness (so, in part to physical damage), skill, divine favor, and so on - or, put more simply, to the general staying power of a character. The thing is, though, that the rules as written don't support that concept well. Particularly, healing and the effects of damage are poor representatives of that philosophy of hit points.

As a result, some people decided a few years ago to experiment with ways of approaching what happens to a character when it runs out of hit points. What would happen, they asked, if instead of just running out of hit points and "going negative" (reducing hit points to negative numbers and starting a clock that runs out with the character dying by losing hit points every round while in negative numbers, sometimes with the ability to stop the clock by giving first aid treatment), hit points were a buffer against actual wounds? That is, hits that did "damage" points after the character had no more hit points would be rolled on a chart of wounds that would then affect the character. Among other things, this makes a character more survivable even with low amounts of hit points, since not every wound would kill the character. A number of such charts were quickly created, and a couple of published games used the idea for their versions of D&D-like games (ACKS is notable in this regard). You can find links to many of these tables here, here, and here.

I thought about the idea, and finally decided that I wanted my AD&D Death & Dismemberment table to interface with the Clerics' healing spells. That meant that there should be results of "Light", "Serious", and "Critical" to go along with the appropriate healing spells. The early version is in the house rules post I linked above, but here is my current version (conveniently behind a cut):

Monday, June 1, 2015

Magical Girls In Old School SF Gaming

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica
I used to be embarrassed to admit it, but I have a soft spot for Magic Girl anime. I've given up that embarrassment (and honi soit qui mal y pense). Sailor Moon, Minky Momo, Fancy Lala, all of them. The genre has a romance and innocence that I need as a counter to my usually grim, gritty, noir predilections. I only ever bought (and still own) two Tri-Stat games: Ghost Dog and Sailor Moon. In some way, that explains a whole lot about me.

As many of you know, I'm in the middle of writing an SF game based on Swords & Wizardry: White Box, which takes a different tack toward the material than White Star did.

What brings these two facts together today? It turns out that there is a release for White Star of a supplement that details a Magic Girl character class, Star Sailors. Obviously, I bought it right away. It's good, if you like that sort of thing, and I do. I will have to make sure that, whatever I end up doing, it will remain compatible with this. I will have to point people toward it in Spectacular Science Stories. It can be an alternative to the Psychic Warriors, perhaps as a rival "organization". Since it can be thought of as similar to the Green Lantern Corps or perhaps the Lensmen, it even fits the setting to some degree.

Star Sailors are empowered by the Star Entity to fight against the Gloom. They gain several abilities, such as their Transformation and Starlight Wand, the Starlight Blast (100' range increment, 1d6+level damage) and the Mascot, and especially the Color of Their Heart power. Those last have names like Royal Passion Rapture (for the color violet), Luminous Courage Glow (for yellow), or Lava Ray Escalation (for red). The Mascot is an animal companion, very intelligent and wise, that grows (or "evolves") as the character rises in level.

(Hat tip to Tim Brannan for bringing this to my attention.)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Ruminating On Gaming Projects

Because the best thing to do when stuff needs
to be done is something else.
Sometimes, you have to sit back and take stock. I've been letting myself run wild and take on a number of gaming projects. I'm not sure if I should continue with all of them, what priority I should put on them, and so on, so it is time to think about that. I'm doing it here because it might help someone else see how another person organizes his thoughts, because someone might mention something that casts this all in a whole new light, and because doing things publicly helps force me to discipline my thinking a little.

First, let me just catalog the projects I have active, or at least semi-active, at this time, not counting actually playing games:
  1. A Top Secret retroclone.
  2. A MegaTraveller retroclone/revision attached to a space operatic setting.
  3. Spectacular Science Stories (aka Rockets & Rayguns).
  4. A Fantasy Wargaming retroclone/update.
  5. A "sixguns & sorcery" setting for GURPS.
  6. Flanaess Sector (for AD&D 1E).
  7. Updating GURPS Voodoo: The Shadow War for GURPS 4E.
  8. Codifying my version of the Trait System.
  9. GURPS Greyhawk.
  10. A magic system for Flashing Blades.
  11. A mashup of Traveller and Flashing Blades.
  12. My ideal roleplaying/adventure game system (mostly in the notes stage). It should be "semi-generic" in that it is intended to cover a number of genres, but all with the same "tone", for lack of a better term.
That, you might notice, is a lot. Several of these projects are stalled for various reasons that I will get to in a moment. Note that some of these have been projects I've undertaken for nearly the whole four-year existence of this blog. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might notice a couple of projects have been dropped from the "active/semi-active" list, such as the WRG Ancients-based RPG or a couple of attempts at an AD&D setting. The setting, actually, is also an ongoing project, but I'm not counting it here since it is purely for my own private use. I do intend to post about the current state of it at some point. The WRG Ancients RPG served its purpose and has been put to bed. Some of the ideas that came up in it have been incorporated into other projects.

Here's the thing, though. All of those projects kind of get in each other's way. For instance, I frequently find myself working feverishly at one of them for a while, then stepping away to another one, and when coming back to the first one finding out that I want to tear down some of what I'd already done and rework it. That's not really helpful if I ever want to finish any of these, and I do want to do that.

So, the first thing to do is to figure out what is most hampering each project at this point.

  1. I remain uncertain just what direction to take this: should it be updated to the modern world's War on Terror or should it reflect late-'70s/early-'80s Cold War? Each has its merits, and Merle Rasmussen recently presented an adventure for the original game set in the modern day.
  2. Rewriting the rules is a bigger task than I had envisioned at first. Yeah, that's mere whining and I should just get on with it, but the core of the game, the Task System, is turning out to be difficult enough to get the same sense in new language that I wonder if I really understand it. On top of that, I've been considering if I want to continue this way or approach the idea from another direction. That is, is MegaTraveller really what I want, or is there another, less drastic revision of classic Traveller that would be better?
  3. Writing a D&D-based SF game is more difficult than some might think, unless you're just re-skinning the D&D rules with SF chrome, which I'm not. Plus, White Star kind of did a number on my head for a while, since it explicitly took Swords & Wizardry: White Box and made it SF, which is sort of the remit of Spectacular Science Stories. Still, I'm plugging away at this one pretty solidly.
  4. I keep finding myself torn between the desire to present a more-or-less straight retroclone and the desire to update the game considerably. Reining in the latter tendency is exhausting. On the other hand, there were clearly some mistakes made in the original that need correcting.
  5. I'm having a sort of crisis of faith with GURPS. It was my go-to, indeed nearly only, RPG for a decade. As I have been examining what I like about RPGs, though, it turns out that GURPS fails at many of those things. Trying to make a random character generation system for it was sobering. I remain convinced that such a random character system for it is possible and desirable, but it seems like too much work when not being paid to write it. I still have much affection for GURPS, but I have things to work through in regard to it.
  6. Many of the same issues present with 3. are also problems here.
  7. See 5.
  8. While I still love the Trait System, I'm not sure that it fills my own needs anymore. It's kinda being superceded* by 12.
  9. See 5.
  10. Actually, nothing. I just haven't gotten back to it in a few weeks.
  11. It's a crazy idea. It's actually more just a "hack" of Flashing Blades as a space opera, but since Traveller is definitive for that sort of thing in my head that's how I conceived it. Mostly, I haven't yet really convinced myself that it's a good idea, so I haven't done much work on it.
  12. Work on this will be slow. I'm sort of thinking of it as "Hârnmaster, GURPS, ACKS, Flashing Blades, PendragonRuneQuest, and classic Traveller have a mutant baby". At this point, I'm just writing down notes when I think of something related to it. I want it to have the detail options of GURPS, the breezy character creation of Flashing Blades, the integrated social systems of ACKS and Flashing Blades, the personality approach of Pendragon, and the gritty realism of Hârnmaster, RuneQuest, and Traveller. Or something like that. A lot of it is still very much in flux. This is my very own Heartbreaker. Maybe I should call it MOHb (for "My Own Heartbreaker").
I haven't even touched on the half-baked ideas I've had on which I haven't done any significant work. An adventure game that uses the Car Wars pedestrian combat and character rules (yes, yes, Autoduel Champions, Car Wars Tanks, and the Ob-Racing article) as its basis, probably scaled up 4x, so that 1/4" in Car Wars is a 1" square in the adventure game. An edition of Traveller that hits a spot somewhere between the Classic and Mega- editions (probably as a supplement to the Classic edition, since The Traveller Book is back in print). An entirely new Pulp Solar System setting, with my own versions of ancient Mars and swampy Venus (and the other planets). Returning to the WRG Ancients-based adventure game in a more serious fashion. My own attempt at GURPS Warhammer 40,000.

So, how do I prioritize these? I'm thinking that Spectacular Science Stories is my most important project right now, so that should be what I work on until it is finished, with the only intruding project being MOHb. After that, I'll pick whichever one is the most interesting to me at that moment (probably not Flanaess Sector, though, because that would be just too much SF all in a row) and work on it until I'm finished with that one, and so on. One project at a time might just be the best way to go.

What do you think?

*Some people say that this is an incorrect spelling of "superseded". Those people are wrong.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Four Years

That's how long you've been putting up with me. I started this blog and then made my first post (two posts, actually) on 27 May 2011.

I got nothin'. At least I remembered it this year.

Anyway, from those first posts, I was still adrift. I'd recently left my longtime gaming group because I wasn't having fun playing the games that they wanted to play, and my commute was very long to play them. Life is too short, as they say, to play games that aren't fun for you. So, I had been looking around to find out what went wrong when I stumbled across the fabled Grognardia blog and a few others of the same ilk. Finding a theoretical framework in the OSR that supported my long-held opinions about gaming, I got a little excited about the concept. I don't think that I really understood it at first, but I was examining the framework that did the things that I'd been thinking of as what makes RPGs different than storytelling. My model was that movies didn't really take off until they dropped trying to be ways to document plays done on location in the round and developed their own strengths. Similarly, I don't think that RPGs are well served by trying to make them out to be novels that people play, and trying to fit the rhythms of roleplaying into the well-established rhythms of storytelling.

Whatever, I have uncovered what I think is the way I want to experience RPGs. It seems to have tapped into that same thing that was so exciting and special when I was 10.

But this isn't about that. This is just saying that I've been doing this for a while now, and I'm glad that you're still here. I hope that you stick around for a while longer.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Aliens In Spectacular Science Stories - The Koni

Not quite right. They should both be lops.
Plus, more rayguns.
As a sort of preview of the way I am going about this, I have been giving some excerpts from the manuscript in progress. Last time was the Haashek, who are pretty much Lizard Men. This time, I introduce the Koni, but I'll only give the specifics of one of the three possible Koni character classes. The other two, the Koni Seer and the Koni Tinker, are going to be specialized versions of the human classes of Psychic Warrior and Scientist, respectively.


A more typical Koni example.
Koni are small beings, around half the height of a human, and weigh around 12kg on average. They are covered in short, usually brown fur and have long ears that hang on either side of their head. They look rather like a cross between a rabbit and a teddy bear. Koni prefer to live in underground warrens, surrounded by others of their kind, and enjoy eating, sitting in the sun, studying in their study, and producing offspring. They are not, typically, very adventurous, but some few get the urge to travel to distant places, though always with the intention of returning home with stories to tell to the next generations. These special Koni choose between three classes, the Koni Adventurer, the Koni Seer, or the Koni Tinker. Because of their unassuming natures, Koni require unusual amounts of Experience Points to rise above 4th level, no matter which class they choose.

Koni Adventurer Advancement Table

Exp. Points
Hit Dice (d6)
Saving Throw
Defense Bonus

To rise to levels higher than 10, the Koni Adventurer must accumulate Experience Points equal to double those of the previous level. Therefore, 11th level requires 2,200,000 Experience Points, 12th requires 4,400,000, and so on.

Koni Adventurer Class Abilities

Prime Requisite: A Koni Adventurer may choose whether to use Strength or Dexterity as their Prime Requisite, but the player must choose one or the other on creating the character, and may not change it thereafter. A Prime Requisite of 15+ gives a +5% bonus to earned Experience Points while a Prime Requisite of 6 or lower incurs a penalty of -5% to Experience Points gained, as normal.

Small Size: Because of their size, Koni have a higher Defense Bonus than human Adventurers do. However, they lose all of it if they wear most types of armor, as normal.

Deadly Accuracy: Koni have an almost preternatural ability to hit their targets with ranged weapons. They gain a +2 bonus to hit with any missile or beam weapon. This includes artillery.

Near Invisibility: If they don’t want to be seen or heard, it is very difficult to find Koni. In any non-combat situation, a Koni can move in such a way that they can’t be seen if there is any cover at all, even shadowy areas, and their silent movement is the stuff of spacers’ wonder-stories.

Saving Throw: Koni Adventurers gain a +2 bonus to saving throws against death and poison, and also a +4 bonus to saving throws against psychic abilities.

Establish Warren: At any time after reaching 4th level, a Koni Adventurer can establish a Warren if they choose. Usually, this will be in a pleasant dale, a beautiful river valley, or among pastoral hills. Once established, other Koni will come to settle the Warren.

Obviously, the Koni are very much inspired by the halflings of Swords & Wizardry, but as usual I am trying to eliminate artificial level caps in exchange for procedural, practical limits. The idea for how to increase the class above fourth level came from Brave Halfling Publishing's The Halfling Adventurer. The original idea for Koni came from several sources, notably the Bunrabs of Swordbearer and the whole setup of Bunnies & Burrows, but also the GURPS adaptation of that last.

Monday, May 18, 2015

[Obscure Games]WarpWorld

One of the better small game companies out there is Blacksburg Tactical Research Center, or BTRC. They started out with a game called TimeLords, following that up with two games using the same system (and at least three other main game systems, CORPS, EABA, and Macho Women With Guns, not even counting their minor efforts like Epiphany, but I won't be talking much about those today), SpaceTime and WarpWorld. TimeLords was a game of time travel, in which the players became unmoored in time through the influence of a super-tech artifact. SpaceTime mixed space operatic adventure with gritty cyberpunk aesthetics. WarpWorld, the last of the games using the system, postulated a post-apocalyptic world in which magic returns to our world, causing immense havoc. The setting has since been retooled for use with BTRC's current system of focus, EABA, but this overview will discuss the original version. Except for the setting-specific elements, the rules are largely similar between the three games, and I'll try to quickly run through the other two at the end. Notable here is that the company's supplement, Guns, Guns, Guns (aka 3G), was written with this system in mind, and so the weapon statistics generated there drop into this system with no adjustments needed.

BTRC was clearly influenced strongly by GURPS, but wanted to give more detail to the game. Also, the designer has a few… peeves, shall we say, about the math involved in games. They weren't apparently strong peeves, since the ideas were dropped in later BTRC games, in favor of playability.

That's an important thing starting out: this is a complex game. It is for people who really like to work out detailed results, using sometimes complex arithmetic and even simple equations. If you don't like that sort of thing, then these three games are not for you. Me, I like that sort of thing in theory, but when it comes to actually playing games I'm not really likely to use these sorts of systems.

The setting assumes a short nuclear conflict on September 6, 2016, after which the world changes irrevocably for unknown reasons. Whether because of the enormous energies released or because of the millions of near-simultaneous deaths, the Old Gods return to the world, bringing magic with them and artificially limiting technology. Along with magic, elves, ogres, dwarves, and the like start to appear, as well. In some ways, the setting is like Shadowrun, only with all of the technology reduced. Because of the influence of the Old Gods, items of a "Tech Level" higher than a certain value are suppressed after being noticed. There is a system to indicate how high a Tech Level is available at any given time (it fluctuates due to certain factors), and how long it takes for use of such technology to be noticed and shut down. Further, there are some magical ways to limit the ability of the Old Gods to notice tech, though not with any long-term effectiveness.

Character creation is by spending points for attributes, skills, and advantages, while more points can be gained by taking disadvantages. If desired, a character can be designated a race other than human, taking attribute modifiers and acquiring special abilities and limitations as appropriate. The races are supposed to be relatively balanced out, so there are no point costs involved. There is an optional rule for "halfbreed" characters, whose parents are of two different races, but in the basic game setting this is not considered to be possible. The attributes for a character are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Willpower, Bravado (a measure of the character's bluffing ability), Perception, Appearance, Stamina, and Power (for magic/psychic abilities). There are other abilities that derive from these or other character elements (such as Body Points being derived from the character's mass in kg, with mass being derived from the character's Strength and a die roll for height, cross-indexed on a chart). There are a few templates designed to make creating a character a bit easier, but mainly it's going to take some effort. The system in TimeLords is slightly different, including a number of tests to administer to the players in order to allow them to quantify themselves in game terms, so that they would end up playing themselves (at least until that character was lost for whatever reason), though the point-buy system exists there, too, just in case.

One important feature of the game, and the subject of the math peeve to which I referred above, is the way modifiers are used. Rather than simply adding to or subtracting from a value, a modifier is effectively a percentage modification. That is, a +1 doesn't add 1 to your score, it multiplies your score by 1.05, each +1 or -1 being a 5% adjustment. This is correlated on a handy table called the "Universal Modifier Chart" (or UMC) that serves a number of purposes, so it is at least usable. The designer does this because, as he notes, a simple modifier has a different effect on differing levels of skill. A simple +5 would double the chances for a rating of 5, while only increasing a rating of 10 by 50%. One of the other major uses of the UMC is to determine the effect of an injury. For instance, if a person with 28 body points was hit by a weapon with a damage of 7, a cross-index of the chart would show a result of 5 (= 25%, see how that works?), giving a Damage Level of 5.

Using skills in the game is fairly simple. Find the base level of the skill, apply modifiers according to the UMC, and roll a d20 for that value or less. Some skill uses are automatic (the example given is climbing a ladder, where you could work up modifiers and roll on the Climb skill, or just specify that anyone with a 2 or greater Climb skill makes it automatically - and since the average person has a base skill level of around 3 in everything, that's pretty much everyone). There is a list of the "auto-success" levels for various difficulties, and to the game's credit it extends the idea all the way up to amazingly hard events like shooting a coin out of the air. There's a mechanism for figuring out how some skills can assist others in particular situations (the example is making leather armor, which would be based on Seamster skill, but could be assisted by the Tanner skill). Oh, yeah, there are a lot of skills. When I was young, I thought that sort of thing was cool, but these days I am less fond of such attempts to find a comprehensive list of relatively narrow skills.

Magic assumes that each spell is a skill. Casting multiple spells uses up the character's ability to concentrate, represented by the WILL attribute (and other activities use up concentration, too). More or less the same system, though not as detailed, is used in both TimeLords and SpaceTime for psychic/psionic powers. There are a lot of things that magic can do, but they are carefully described in game terms. There are some rules for enchanting objects, with different materials having a different ability to take an enchantment. Since black powder falls pretty well within the level of tech usually permitted by the Old Gods, enchanted pistols are pretty common.

Combat is divided into turns of 10 seconds, each turn having 10 phases. A character can act in a number of phases equal to half (rounded up) of their Speed. Speed is based on the average of Strength and Dexterity for physical actions, or Intelligence for mental ones like magic. There is a chart indicating on which phases characters of various Speeds may act. It is possible to act on other phases, but such actions take a negative modifier. Initiative within a phase is based on the average of Speed and the skill being used, plus or minus appropriate modifiers (not using the UMC for once). Hitting a target is a skill roll, but there are a ton of modifiers for specific circumstances.

When hit, a character takes a base damage of the weapon's DV/10 in d10, plus extra as dice. So, if a weapon has a DV of 28, the roll for damage would be 2d10+1d8. Odd results like 5 or 9 are still rolled as d5 or d9, by rolling the next higher die and rerolling inappropriate results (or, I'd imagine, if you happen to have the appropriate dice lying around, you could use those). Depending on the type of weapon, some of this damage will be Lethal, and some Non-Lethal. Weapons like knives and bullets do all Lethal damage, while maces do 3/4 as Lethal, wooden clubs do half as Lethal, and so on. This is modified for armor at the area hit (which might only convert some Lethal damage to Non-Lethal), and then converted to a Damage Level for that location using the UMC as noted above. In the basic system, the Damage Level is used as an Impairment modifier for any use of the affected area, and to check if the character falls unconscious, lays dying, or dies instantly. The more complex system has an extensive list of hit locations, damage levels, and a die roll to give a detailed wound result incorporating Impairment, Stun, Broken Bones, Eventually Fatal, and Fatal results. Personally, of detailed injury systems that don't rely on Hit Points, I prefer the system found in Hârnmaster, but this one is serviceable.

TimeLords, as I mentioned above, is about the players themselves being cast into the streams of Time by an artifact, which they must attempt to learn to control in order to find their way home - or to wherever/whenever else they wish to go. The game book includes the character sheets of the original playtest group.

SpaceTime suffers from trying to be both a cyberpunk game and a space opera. This was a problem with 2300AD (aka Traveller 2300), as well, but not as severely because of its focus on the frontiers. Still, it's interesting enough as such settings go. If you like star travel and computer hacking, then the setting (at least) might be worth a look.

As you can tell, the game system is very detailed and very complex. There is more, obviously, such as wilderness survival rules and so on. The setting, on the other hand, is potentially very interesting. Happily, BTRC, as I noted in passing above, has retooled it for use with their current system of focus, EABA, which is a much simpler game (and I think stands for "End All, Be All"). Sadly, they never did convert it to their intermediate game, CORPS (originally for "Conspiracy Oriented Role Playing System", I think, due to its original purpose of providing a system for an X-Files style gaming universe, though it grew far beyond that remit in the second edition, where it was said to stand for "Complete Omniversal Role Playing System"), which comes pretty close to my point-buy system sweet spot. I'll talk about CORPS in more detail some time, but for now it is enough to note that it was a simplification of the system described here which attempted to minimize dice rolling by expanding the "auto-success" rules. There are still rolls for hit location and the effects of damage, but damage itself is fixed in CORPS. But enough about that for now.

In summary, WarpWorld and its sister games are interesting designs, but mostly exist to show what can happen when things are taken too far. They aren't really the best choices for actual play, and apparently even the designer no longer uses the rules. Still, with the right group, possessed of the right mentality, they could be fun. Most of the rest of us, though, will quickly tire of the ubiquitous arithmetic, math, and modifiers, as well as the extensive need for complex and detailed record keeping. The settings of TimeLords and WarpWorld are already converted to a simpler system, so if those are what you're looking for, you are better advised to go there.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

More Examples Of Raygun Fantasy
Obviously, I didn't exhaust the raygun fantasy catalog in the last post! Here are some more:

Krull - A movie that no one knew what to do with at the time, and worse, one that practiced a strange bait-and-switch! Whatever its other strengths and flaws, no one who sees it without having the ending spoiled sees that ending coming, though it makes perfect sense given the setup of the film. Unfortunately, audiences at the time were too confused by the combination of mixing genres that had become customarily separated and the auctorial sleight of hand to react well. As time goes on, though, I think that more and more people are coming to see the virtues of this strange, idiosyncratic raygun fantasy.
Dune - Perhaps the best-selling SF novel of all time, Dune is pretty solidly in the SF New Wave. Its psychedelic, anti-agathic drug that forms the fundamental motivating force of the whole interstellar society described in the six central novels is exactly the reverse of, say, the Lensmen's stark opposition to thionite. However, Herbert clearly chose his technologies carefully in order to emphasize the personal drama of swordplay and knife fighting over the impersonal tactical chess of ballistic or energetic weapons, while still finding a place for those, and his history was designed to downplay the influence of computing devices in favor of the sort of human interests that characterize raygun fantasy. Further, Herbert's own deep understanding of religion and spirituality inform much of the plot and setting of the books. To a great degree, Dune can serve as a model for how to merge relatively "hard" SF, in the modern sense, with raygun fantasy. To my way of thinking, this is one of the reasons that Dune, if not its sequels, is perhaps the greatest possible SF novel.

Many of the works of H.P. Lovecraft approach the ideas and themes of raygun fantasy, though the lack of human space travel tends to push it away. Still, the concept that what we know as "magic" could well be alien science touches on the merging of the material and the psychological that characterizes, to some extent, much raygun fantasy. It is, perhaps, not surprising then that we find later Lovecraftian authors (such as Toren Atkinson, whose roleplaying game Spaceship Zero is one I'll be dealing with as I discuss raygun fantasy RPGs) finding their way into the fold.

It's been suggested that Space 1999 would fit into the concept, though it has been a long while since I have seen the show so I can't commit to that, nor comment further.

Similarly Jack Vance's "Five Demon Princes" tales. I haven't read them, so can't comment on the idea.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein deals with raygun fantasy ideas, though it is clearly moving toward modern SF. Some of his "juveniles", such as Time for the Stars or, especially, Between Planets, also deal with raygun fantasy ideas, and his "Future History" stories certainly fit into the continuum of raygun fantasy to scientifiction. Heinlein, though, seems to have been instrumental in ending the era of "retro SF", perhaps taking Galaxy's first-issue manifesto to heart. Heinlein was also an occasional practitioner of the closely related, but different, subgenre of science fantasy, notably in "Magic, Inc." and Glory Road.

While I'm at it, I am going to start listing roleplaying products that fit into the idea of raygun fantasy, or at least scientifiction, but without comment (or at least not much). I'll avoid more science fantasy entries such as Spelljammer or Empire of the Petal Throne, as well as edge cases like Gamma World, Metamorphosis Alpha, and Mutant Future:

Anomalous Subsurface Environment (depending to some extent on how it's run)

Burning Sands: Jihad (supplement for The Burning Wheel; a Dune knockoff)

Carcosa (tends toward planetary romance)

Dark Space (supplement for Spacemaster/Rolemaster)

Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium (Last Unicorn Games's last gasp, released by WotC in a limited edition after acquiring them)

Flash Gordon and the Warriors of Mongo (hardly an RPG by today's standards)

GURPS (3E) Lensman

GURPS (3E) Mars ("Dying Mars" chapter)

GURPS (3E) Planet Krishna

GURPS (4E) Tales of the Solar Patrol

High Adventure Cliffhangers: Buck Rogers Adventure Game

Hulks & Horrors

Lords of Creation (at least some realities)

Machinations of the Space Princess

Prime Directive (or its conversions to other systems, such as GURPS Prime Directive; while the Starfleet Universe of ADB tends to try to avoid raygun fantasy ideas, at least when they interfere with the militaristic approach of the setting, going so far as to have the Organians simply leave without explanation, there are some indications that raygun fantasy remains involved where it can provide a tactical exercise, such as the Loriyill of the Omega Sector)

Rocket Age

Savage Swords of Athanor

Spaceship Zero

Star Trek (two different companies to date, FASA and Last Unicorn Games, plus fan projects; limited to Original Series and Animated Series eras, and possibly the original cast movies)

Star Wars (three different companies to date with official games, plus fan projects like Star Wars Galactic Adventures)

Stars Without Number

Starships & Spacemen (to some extent, anyway, as a Star Trek knockoff)

Tales of the Space Princess

Terminal Space

Under the Broken Moon (Thundarr RPG)

Under the Dying Sun (unfinished project, sadly)

Under the Moons of Zoon

Warriors of the Red Planet

White Star

The World of Thundarr the Barbarian (supplement for Mutant Future)


I look forward to hearing other suggestions. I'll discuss the RPGs in more detail as time goes on.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Cataloging Raygun Fantasy - An Initial Foray

In the last post, I discussed my basic thoughts on what constitutes "raygun fantasy", and how that subgenre of retro SF differs from "scientifiction". It's also different than other retro SF genres such as steampunk or dieselpunk, but those others aren't really relevant to the current discussion. For now, I'll limit myself to the continuum between scientifiction and raygun fantasy. I did note elsewhere that one could call the blending of the two poles "sword & blaster". There is one other subgenre that is relevant, though, which is the "planetary romance". Most raygun fantasy falls within the bounds of planetary romance, which is a subgenre concerned with adventure across the varying environments of an alien world. Planetary romance dates back to the earliest era of SF, being the category one could place such works as A Princess of Mars by Burroughs and its sequels, or even the Flash Gordon newspaper strips that I consider definitive to raygun fantasy.

What I'd like to do in this post is begin cataloging the works that constitute raygun fantasy to some extent or another. It can't be complete, and I would certainly appreciate suggestions from my readers to help expand the list. I'm specifically going to avoid mentioning roleplaying games, as I intend to examine those individually in future posts. All of that said, here we go:

The stories about Northwest Smith by C.L. Moore - These were the stories that gave me the realization that there was a subgenre to identify in the first place. The repeated theme of powerful, incorporeal aliens which were interacted with in manners that resembled magic or religion are definitive to raygun fantasy. Moore's first story about Smith was "Shambleau", and she went on to write a total of twelve stories plus a short vignette, all collected in Northwest of Earth.

The Flash Gordon newspaper strips and movie serials - Especially the Sunday strips written by the creator of the character, Alex Raymond. Flash's trips to Mongo were clearly inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's tales of John Carter, and include the requisite swordfights and inhabitants of Mongo who are differentiated by their skin color (though that latter distinction lessens and eventually vanishes from the strip by the end of Raymond's run). In one sequence, Flash fights against the "Witch-Queen", whose arcane - and unique - technology gives her powers that resemble magic. The inventions of Dr. Zarkov occasionally resemble magic, as well, such as one sequence in which the doctor invents a booth that can make a man invisible for a few hours. The 1980 film version draws on ideas from the SF New Wave that were current at the time, such as chemical enhancements, and added an element of deliberate camp.

Star Wars and sequels (and prequels, etc.) - Originally, George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, but couldn't get the rights. This resulted, happily, in the excellent idea of making his own sci-fi pseudo-serial. The story of Star Wars centers on the action of the Force, a mystical, all-encompassing energy field which directs the fates of the central characters to varying degrees. I don't think I even need to discuss this one further, as probably everyone reading this is intimately familiar with the details of Lucas's stories.

After those three, which I consider to be the central, defining works of raygun fantasy, there are many others.

The Lensmen series of stories by E.E. "Doc" Smith - While Smith tried to make plausible explanations for the devices of his Galactic Patrol, the telepathic powers of the Lensmen themselves, as well as the instrumentality of the Lens and the "Ascended Masters" manifest in the Arisians (who are fighting the demonic Eddorians that are breaking into our reality from another), force the series deeper into human, spiritual concerns. Some of the fans of the series only consider the four books Galactic Patrol, Grey Lensman, Second-Stage Lensmen, and Children of the Lens to be truly canonical, and to be best read in that order.

Eric John Stark and other stories by Leigh Brackett - I haven't actually read the Skaith books that change the setting from the planets of the Solar System (mainly Mars, Venus, and Mercury) to a broad range of stellar systems, but I hear that they are basically the same in tone as the original three novellas. Brackett gives a noir edge to retro SF, and Stark runs into mystical forces masquerading as technology, from the soul-transfer crown of "The Secret of Sinharat" (a revised and expanded version of "Queen of the Martian Catacombs") to the mystical, titular talisman of "People of the Talisman" (a revision and expansion of "Black Amazon of Mars"), not to mention the very title of "Enchantress of Venus". Many of her other stories are set in the same background as the Stark ones, and so are well worth reading (see, for instance, the collection The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by her husband, Edmond Hamilton).

Speaking of Hamilton, The Star Kings and other stories of his fit well into the realm of raygun fantasy. The Star Kings, in fact, are the subject of the only official collaboration between Hamilton and his wife, "Stark and the Star Kings", connecting Eric John Stark to that series.

Buck Rogers is certainly influential on raygun fantasy, but it is itself pretty solidly scientifiction as I've defined it, being more concerned with developing the implications of the gadgetry than exploring the mental and spiritual natures of the characters. The late-'70s television series included more raygun fantasy elements than the original newspaper strips or the novella Armageddon 2419 AD.

John Carter - Edgar Rice Burroughs nearly singlehandedly invented the planetary romance when he wrote "Under the Moons of Mars", serialized in The All-Story starting in February 1912. When the serial was finished, it was collected as the novel, A Princess of Mars. Deeply influenced by Theosophy, Burroughs's adventure tale went on to influence sci-fi deeply, and may be the original source of the frequent mysticism infusing raygun fantasy.

Barbarella - Starting out as a comic book of "erotic SF" in 1964 in France (though you can almost find more racy material on television for children these days), written by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella took the images and tropes of sci-fi and married them to European concerns about humanity, sexuality, and liberation. Famously made into a movie starring Jane Fonda in 1968 (though it didn't really succeed until its re-release in 1977 as Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy, with the nudity toned down - not that there was much to begin with!), this is one of the places where the SF New Wave joined closely to retro SF and explored raygun fantasy.

Battlestar Galactica - Not so much the "reimagined" series of the early 2000s, which developed its own (related) concerns, but the original television series touched frequently on spiritual and religious issues, leaving it pretty firmly in the area of raygun fantasy. The reimagined series is pretty well in raygun fantasy territory, but seems to have dropped a lot of the fun in favor of existential dread, which I think disqualifies it to some extent, in the sense that such existential concerns are nearly the opposite of the spiritual ones of raygun fantasy. As a case study in what it is about Modernism and Postmodernism that opposes Romanticism and Enlightenment concerns, the reimagined series is probably an excellent example - but that isn't really my concern here. There is little to recommend the "sequel" series, Galactica 1980, excepting only the final episode of that mercifully short-run series, which dealt with the fate of Starbuck.

Guardians of the Galaxy - I have not, unfortunately, read the comic on which it is based, but the 2014 film includes the mystical pseudo-technology characteristic of raygun fantasy and updates it for modern audiences, as well as the physical and personal fighting to be found in it. I'm particularly happy, from a gaming perspective, to see the theme of treasure hunting included.

Tara, Marauder of the Spacelanes - Available in a collection from Nuelow Games (though missing the first, origin, story which was apparently presented in Wonder Comics #15; the collection features a prose short story intended as an origin which does not draw on the original). Originally a fairly obscure and short series found in Wonder Comics in the late 1940s, mostly known now because it passed into the Public Domain. That said, it is a lovely, quirky example of raygun fantasy, though it tends toward the more pure adventure elements than the spiritual and psychological concerns of most raygun fantasy. In that way, it resembles Flash Gordon to some extent, though the art and writing are not nearly as good. Tara's Atom Sword is obviously one of the precursors of the lightsabers of Star Wars.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe - Starting as a line of plastic toys and the show-length advertisements for them masquerading as entertainment, these quickly developed into some serious stories. While perhaps not the best, they were nonetheless very well-received. The live-action movie, while not a classic, isn't terrible. Again, I doubt that I really need to go into detail about this.

Thundarr the Barbarian - Probably the last Saturday-morning cartoon that wasn't either slapstick or a toy advertisement, Thundarr is more post-apocalyptic, but deserves mention as sharing many of the concepts of raygun fantasy, such as swordplay, magical technologies, and even straightforward magic.

Star Trek - While it has a reputation as being relatively "hard" SF, the original series and its animated followup actually follow raygun fantasy ideas much more often than the technogadgetry that typified the later Generation or even Enterprise. Starting in the two pilot episodes, "The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before", the series immediately laid out a concern about the spiritual elements of being human as being pre-eminent over the validity of the science. This was quickly reinforced by episodes such as "Charlie X", which re-wrote* Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land as a tragedy of adolescence (a necessary change due to the show's basic conceit, which could not support the messianic message inherent in Heinlein's story). The exploration of raygun fantasy themes would last all the way to the last episode of the original series, "Turnabout Intruder", which presented a machine that transferred the "essence" of two people between each other, just as the Crowns of the Ramas in Leigh Brackett's "The Secret of Sinharat". The animated series continued to explore those themes, as well, to varying success. While The Next Generation did occasionally (especially early on) touch on such matters, mostly they were dealt with dismissively or ham-fistedly. Compare Q to Squire Trelane for example. Despite being similar enough that the former's first appearance in "Encounter at Farpoint" seems at times almost to be a direct remake of "The Squire of Gothos", the latter is pretty well handled while the former quickly becomes tiresome. Perhaps this due to his frequent employment in the series, or to the fact that Trelane is presented as a child while Q is merely an annoying and frequent interloper.

I'll stop there for now. What are some more that you think would fit the idea?

* This is purely my own theory. I do not know for certain if Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana were directly influenced by Heinlein's novel.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Raygun Fantasy and Scientifiction

I'm working on a more complete essay on the subject, but I wanted to get some initial thoughts down about the difference between what I am calling "raygun fantasy" and "scientifiction". The basic idea is that raygun fantasy takes ideas and themes that are most common in fantasy stories, such as spirituality, heroism, and other human concerns, cloaking them in imagery related to technology but without concerning itself too closely with the actual plausibility of those images. Scientifiction (the term is taken from Hugo Gernsback's preferred term for science-oriented fiction), on the other hand, tends toward matters of the sciences, dramatizing either scientific concepts or technological speculation, without much concern for realistic human issues. I use the term specifically for "retro" forms of SF, which are based in forms of science, technologies, and hypotheses that have not proven to be useful or practical, from theories of the luminiferous ether to ideas of negative mass. Of course, there is a certain overlap where raygun fantasy fades into scientifiction, and certainly other terms could be coined to more precisely situate various stories along a continuum between the two poles.

For example, many episodes of the original Star Trek series were basically raygun fantasy. The various episodes in which powerful aliens - or computers! - who masquerade as gods, angels, or who act in much the way that spiritual beings are said to act here on Earth are especially indicative of this. "And the Children Shall Lead", "Metamorphosis", "Wolf in the Fold", "Arena", "Who Mourns for Adonais?", and many other episodes of that series typify that sort of approach. Northwest Smith encountered many beings that were from other dimensions or planes of existence and were no different than otherplanar beings in fantasy fiction. Star Wars is notable for its fantastic elements, especially the various manifestations of the Force, and draws many of its plot concepts from myth and legend. The Lensman stories tend toward scientifiction, but the Arisians resemble occult concepts of Ascended Masters to a great degree, the Eddorians invade our universe from an alien space-time continuum, and the telepathic powers of the Galactic Patrol are largely similar to magic.

Another frequent element of raygun fantasy is the use of swords. This can be either unexplained, as in Flash Gordon where fighting with swords just happens or Krull where the presence of swords is taken for granted, or else given a rationale of some sort, such as the interaction of light sabers and the Force in Star Wars or the shield belts of Dune. This happens often enough that I had considered calling the subgenre "sword & blaster".

That last brings up an important area of crossover in subgenres of SF. The SF New Wave frequently drew inspiration and concepts from the era that gave us the core of raygun fantasy, and as a result often fits well into the concept. In fact, the influence occasionally went the other way as well, after a fashion, as when the 1980 film of Flash Gordon featured an Emperor Ming who controlled and enhanced his soldiers with drugs, a common New Wave motif.

To my way of thinking, the ideal of raygun fantasy stories are C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories, Flash Gordon, and Star Wars. Those form the core around which I am building my ideas of the subgenre. There are many other examples, from Lost in Space and Battlestar Galactica (the 1978-79 series more than the 21st century remake) to Richard Corben's "Den of Earth" stories and Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark tales, plus the Masters of the Universe toy line and television series, not even to mention videogames like Final Fantasy. One of the most recent manifestations of the idea is found in the blockbuster film Guardians of the Galaxy. I'll discuss this all more completely later.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spectacular Science Stories and Psychic Powers (and Tales of the Space Princess)

I finally got hold of John Stater's Tales of the Space Princess (not to be confused with James "Grim" Desborough's Machinations of the Space Princess, which is a very different game), and I love it! I especially love it because it's very similar to what I've been trying to do with Spectacular Science Stories. Oops. Still, there are differences in our respective approaches, so I'll keep going. I want to write a more complete review of Stater's game, but I need to do some research first, so it will wait. In fact, I want to talk about many of the other games that cover similar territory, from TSR's High Adventure Cliffhangers: Buck Rogers to Warriors of the Red Planet. Maybe even the FGU Flash Gordon game if I can manage to afford a copy.

Instead, right now I want to talk about Psychic Powers and the Psychic Warriors of Spectacular Science Stories. My initial brief for them was "like a cross between Jedi and Lensmen, by way of Blue Öyster Cult", and I didn't have much more than that to go on at first. I've been playing with different ways to represent their psychic powers in the game, initially looking at a variation of the D&D Vancian system (discarded as not really good at representing either Jedi or Lensmen), then thinking about ways to adapt the WEG Star Wars RPG approach to the Force (also discarded as it would push the class far too close to Jedi for my liking). Finally, I decided to examine what makes Lensmen different than Jedi, and to consider what it was about "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" that I could import to make a real difference in the class.

Not wanting to abandon the Jedi connection entirely, I looked at the WotC Star Wars method of handling the Force, too. Most of it was either too complex, too tied in with "Feats", or too close to the WEG version to be useful to me. I did like the idea of using hit points to power the abilities, though, as that helps to emphasize the fact that hit points aren't physical damage, plus it gives a potentially interesting tactical puzzle to the Psychic Warriors - spend hit points for powers or save them to soak damage?

The main thing about the Lensmen is that their powers don't really have much of an effect on the physical universe directly. Their real strength is in their ability to affect the minds of others and to sense things at a distance. On the other hand, I didn't want to completely discard the Jedi ability to manipulate things at a distance, though I also didn't want Psychic Warriors floating space fighters around by wiggling their fingers.

What I think I am going to do is divide abilities into Power Groups, like Telepathy, Psychic Combat, Self-Control, and so on. Each Power Group will have five levels of ability, each with one power. At each character level, the Psychic Warrior's player gains two levels to distribute among the Power Groups as he wishes. I currently have six Power Groups (Healing, Probability Manipulation, Psychic Combat, Remote Sensing, Self-Control, and Telepathy), so it would take a character being at 15th level to have all of the abilities at their full capability. Since that would require 20,480,000 experience points, that is a long way off for most characters! Plus, I do plan to come up with other Power Groups (and let my playtesters come up with some if they want), as well as providing loose guidelines for Referees to develop their own. Psychic Warriors do not become a master of every psychic ability there is.

Here are my current notes for Psychic Powers. Note that most of them are not defined enough to even have a cost yet. Also, the Healing abilities will only be usable on others, never on the Psychic Warrior using them (except for "Transcend Death", which can only be used on the Psychic Warrior using it).


  1. Soothing Touch (heal 1d6+1)
  2. Cure Disease
  3. Healing Hands (heal 3d6+3)
  4. Neutralize Poison
  5. Transcend Death (become an astral being)

Probability Manipulation

  1. Lucky Break (reroll one die roll)
  2. Gremlins (machine malfunctions)
  3. Serendipity (useful coincidence)
  4. Probability Control (specify one die roll)
  5. Telekinesis (move object up to 10', cost: 1 per pound or fraction)

Psychic Combat

  1. Mind Block (counter most mind-affecting psychic powers with a save)
  2. Distraction (minor hallucination distracts target)
  3. Psychic Whip (1d6 damage, can't wound/kill)
  4. Invisibility (become unobtrusive)
  5. Neural Overload (save or fall unconscious 1d6 turns)

Remote Sensing

  1. Danger Sense ("I have a bad feeling about this.")
  2. Sense (get a general description of a remote location "A room containing four dogs", "An open plain with a tree, and no animals or men present", and so on)
  3. Clairvoyance (perception as if at a remote location)
  4. Psychometry (detect history of an object)
  5. Precognition (general sense of future events)


  1. Ignore Pain
  2. Rapid Recovery (recover from wounds faster)
  3. Resist Heat/Cold (save for half damage)
  4. Strength/Endurance (feats of strength, increased damage, and so on)
  5. Regeneration (regrow limbs, super-fast recovery from wounds, etc)


  1. Empathy (detect emotional state of a target)
  2. Read Thoughts (detect surface thoughts of a target)
  3. Send Thoughts (transmit thoughts to a target)
  4. Suggestion (Jedi mind tricks)
  5. Mind Control (direct control of actions, edit memories, etc)

Keep in mind that I am also going to be disconnecting hit points from injury. Basically, while you have hit points you aren't injured, but when you run out and get hit you roll on an injury table. Note that the Healing Power Group doesn't actually allow you to heal physical injuries! This is deliberate. I am thinking about the idea of Advanced Powers, which require two Power Groups at high ability to be able to choose them, and which give one powerful ability instead of improving any of the Power Groups.

I'm still thinking of ways to play up the "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" angle. Maybe introduce a streamlined Sanity system from Call of Cthulhu? I dunno. Maybe the Mind Control ability is enough, since it will allow editing of a target's memories.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Aliens In Spectacular Science Stories/Rockets & Rayguns

Yeah, I am still thinking about which name to use. I think that, at least, SSS will be the working title.

Anyway, aliens. Since the game draws on a wide range of sources for its inspiration (I'll do an "Appendix N" post soon), it also draws on a wide array of types of alien races. On the one hand, humanoids, even ones that can intermarry with Humans, should be really common. On the other hand, some of the aliens in the source material get really weird and "out there". A really common trope is the alien race that is a lot like our stories of spirits and demons, being non-physical and capable of manipulating the physical universe in various ways. The original Star Trek series was particularly good for providing visual examples of these, but they were common throughout the history of the pulp raygun fantasy stories.

I'd talked earlier about the idea of the Flanaess Sector, but that was originally targeted at a more "hard" SF setting, where what we know of physics was important. That isn't a concern in raygun fantasy, so I've been looking at other monsters to include as aliens. I probably still won't include elves, since that would make things look a little too much like 40K for comfort!

I'm particularly interested in some of the more obscure entries to be found in the OSR, actually. The Kzaddich and Tsalakian (pdf), originally found in Footprints magazine (and John Turcotte's dreams prior to that), were put into the OGL when they were added to the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book. I think that they would be perfect for raygun fantasy. In the Adventures Dark & Deep Bestiary, Joseph Bloch provides an interesting creature called the "Genius Loci", which resembles a number of creatures from the original Star Trek, from various adventures of Northwest Smith, and so on. Mr. Bloch helpfully included that entry under the OGL.

I mentioned a number of creatures that fit in the Flanaess Sector article, such as the Flumph, Grell, Otyugh (or Neo-Otyugh), Myconids, Ropers, and so on. I think that I can replace the Mind Flayers with the Thelidu (they fit into the idea of raygun fantasy a little better anyway, since they were specifically developed for a science-fantasy influenced setting, Dwimmermount), which were included in the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book by James Maliszewski. The Umber Hulks who attend on Neogi could be replaced by Joseph Bloch's Underground Goliath.

All of that aside, it should be pointed out that nearly anything that fits into a fantasy world will also fit into raygun fantasy worlds. Notably, some of the horrors in Rafael Chandler's Teratic Tome are extremely appropriate to the sorts of pulp SF that falls into the raygun fantasy category.

I should write a manifesto, of sorts, of raygun fantasy.

The main thing that I'll need to do is work out which aliens are most common and have star empires of their own. I already know that I want the Thelidu to have one, with a sector of Ropers resisting them, and I certainly want an empire of Myconids (or maybe Skathros's Mushroom-men).

In the end, though, all of that is pretty much background to the central theme of the game, which I will talk about next time.

Edit 4/26: I didn't get around to talking about that central theme in the next post, but I will. I started to approach the discussion a couple of posts later, when I began to lay out what, exactly, I mean when I say "raygun fantasy".